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Mining is Dangerous (best to remember it when you complain about price or reductions to production)

Have we become so far removed from mining that we have forgotten it is a dangerous business?

This is a question that is not distant to anyone living in the town of Mufulira in Northern Zambia. Here almost everyone in this town of 300,000 has a relative or friend who works down the mine; or in the smelter or in an auxiliary service connected to the mine (contract drillers, electricians, plumbers, IT services etc).

Although Zambia extracts many other minerals, it is copper with which the country is synonymous – the copper that from the 1930s powered the British Empire and kept us in copper during the Second World War.

Having visited the town on several occasions since 2008, I am particularly attuned to the region and so noted the MB headline on August 5th

Mopani Copper Mines suspends operations following deaths of three workers at Mufulira.

The statement was bland in the usual way, reporting that MCM ‘own sourced copper production was 10,700 mt in 1st quarter [2016] down 51% year on the year and 16% quarter on quarter.’

At about 1440m, Mufulira is the oldest and deepest copper mine in Africa and, apart from the smelter complex, I have also visited the face. From this level blasted rock is scooped and conveyed by underground vehicles along the tunnels to shafts where it drops down onto a conveyor to take the huge pieces (weighing tens of tons) to another underground level for crushing before further conveyance to the surface. I imagined, therefore, the possibility that blasting had gone wrong during the stoping process

I remember being guided by a safety officer who was exhaustive in his explanations of safety. In fact the whole experience of visiting MCM to a metal tourist such as myself was connected to safety. Before each visit to the plant, more than an hour is routinely spent in MCM’s offices explaining safety procedures, watching a graphic safety video, and listening to the company’s attention to this matter. Up on the surface, the latest digital equipment is used to simulate mining in the plush new training centre, also with the purpose of upping the skills of workers and reducing accidents.

But sometimes, despite all this, things can fail and questions need to be asked.

When I contacted friends in Mufulira as well as other locals one reported as follows (and all other reports were in a similar vein)

“I heard of the three fatal mine accident victims and what actually happened that day. I was told that the miners were repairing a water pump underground. The pump was then lowered down into the water to fix it, while the miners were also submerged in water up to their waist line. After it was fixed, one of the miners was asked to go and switch on power to test it (while they were partially submerged in water)! When the pump was switched on, three of the miners who were with the pump were immediately electrocuted! Was this ignorance? How do you switch on power and your friends are wet and in contact with water and electric pump? There are a lot of safety issues to be discussed with Mopani because a lot accidents seen are attributed to very flimsy causes. We are yet to be availed with the final investigation report then we conclusively know what actually happened.”

Undoubtedly, questions will be asked, reports made, and new procedures instituted. But one thing has changed already. For the first time in my memory each miner was named in the MB report and presumably in the Glencore/MCM Press Release , and I should like to repeat their names here. Mr Lomba Christopher, Mr Ali Sichone and Mr Levy Chisapa.

The question that needs to be asked is to what extent did pressure to produce, pressure not to hold up operations or poor training contribute to this loss of life? My personal impression of Glencore/MCM is that they wish to be good miners not just for their balance sheet but also to set high standards. They will have been mortified by this accident. It reminds them and us that the price of copper is not the only price we pay to switch on our lights.

Published August 31st 2016 on www.lord-copper.com